Mid-season hire Scott Parker seeks Club Brugge lift-off in Champions League

A surprise hire by Club Brugge in December, former England midfielder Scott Parker is preparing to coach in the Champions League for the first time as the Belgian team takes on Benfica in the round of 16. Parker, 42, had been out of work since being sacked by Bournemouth in August following a 9-0 defeat to Liverpool and his criticism of the Premier League club's approach in the transfer market.

"Stepping in as head coach halfway through the season means you want to see what you want to change quickly," Parker said at his unveiling. "There is no doubt we can be successful with this team. It's now up to me to stimulate this and keep going."

Despite qualifying from the Champions League group stage for the first time, the Belgian champion has struggled domestically this season and sits a distant fourth -- 20 points behind league leader Genk.

Brugge has won just once in seven games under Parker, who spent the entirety of his playing career in England before retiring in 2017 and promptly turning to coaching. After a season with Tottenham's under-18s, he rejoined Fulham to serve as an assistant to former boss Slavisa Jokanovic and then Claudio Ranieri after the Serb was dismissed. Parker was thrust into a caretaker role once Ranieri was fired and Fulham was relegated from the top-flight at the end of the 2018-19 season.  Given the job full-time, Parker brought the Cottagers back to the Premier League right away before the club suffered relegation once more.

While Brugge upset the odds to advance from a group including Atletico Madrid, Porto and Bayer Leverkusen, there is no question that Benfica will be favored to reach the quarterfinals.

Parker is the first Englishman to coach a foreign club in the Champions League since Bobby Robson with PSV Eindhoven in 1998. He is still searching for the right combination at a club used to competing for the top prize in Belgium and which finished runner-up in the European Cup in 1978.

"We are still far away from the level we want to reach," Parker said after his first and only win so far, a 2-1 victory at Zulte Waregem two weeks ago.

'Most painful day.' Parker has completed just two full seasons in management -- both of which ended in promotion, having also guided Bournemouth back into the Premier League last season. The record-equaling loss to Liverpool was his "toughest and most painful day" in soccer and while he enjoyed spending more time with his family, he had no hesitation about embarking on a new adventure abroad. 

"When I got the call {from Club Brugge}, how they sold it was pretty special. The fire came back in my belly. It was the feeling of 'I can't wait to get going!', so let's go for it."

Parker, who came up through the Charlton Athletic academy, was in the Chelsea team that reached the Champions League semi-finals under Ranieri in 2004, the year Jose Mourinho's Porto won the competition. Mourinho arrived at Stamford Bridge that summer and Parker's days at Chelsea were limited, but the midfielder continued at the top level for another decade -- playing for Newcastle, West Ham, Tottenham and Fulham. He won 18 England caps and started for his country at Euro 2012 alongside Steven Gerrard, who reportedly turned down an approach from Brugge as the club searched for a replacement for Carl Hoefkens.

In Parker, Brugge has landed upon a manager who aligns himself closely with the club's "no sweat no glory" motto.

"It's the kind of mentality that suits me to a tee. One million per cent," Parker said. "I wanted to get the utmost out of my career as a player, and it's the kind of mentality that stuck to me."

Whether that is enough to restore Brugge to the summit in Belgium and prolong its improbable European run, only time will tell.


© Agence France-Presse

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